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London

london houses of parliament big ben sunset sunrise dusk evening red What everyone wants to see is atop St. Stephen's Tower near the houses of Parliament. Recently renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of the queen's diamond jubilee, Big Ben, as it may always be known, is named for the 13-ton bell inside the clock. When it was completed in 1859, it had the largest bell in the U.K. Its accuracy is controlled using old pennies (the coins act as counterweights in clock's mechanism to ensure it keeps time to the nearest second). A photo is a must-do. Only U.K. residents are currently permitted to visit the clock tower; tours must be arranged through your local MP several months in advance.

The spectacular Gothic buildings overlooking the Thames known as the Houses of Parliament are home to the English government. At one end is the House of Lords; at the other, the House of Commons. U.K. residents may take free tours throughout the year, while overseas visitors may only tour the building on Saturdays and during in the summer; however, non-U.K. citizens may attend debates and committees all year round.

The largest museum in England, the British Museum is London's most visited attraction. Highlights include the Elgin Marbles, the 2,200-year-old Rosetta stone, Egyptian mummies, the Portland Vase and suits of armor from the time of King Arthur.

Don't believe the naysayers! It is fun to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Queen's 600-room house -- Buckingham Palace. It's always at 11:30 a.m. (on alternating days in the winter and daily in the summer). Get there early and you can practically push your nose through the front gate. The Queen's Gallery is worth visiting to see hundreds of objects collected by George III and Queen Charlotte since 1762, when he purchased the house for his bride. You can also get inside 19 lavishly furnished State Rooms adorned with Rembrandts, Rubens and such. The Royal Mews is home to an amazing collection of historic carriages and coaches -- many still used today -- such as the Irish State Coach that the Queen takes to the opening of Parliament and the nearly four-ton Gold State Coach that has carried every monarch to his or her coronation since 1821.

Once a venue for duels, executions and royal hunts -- and a giant potato field during WWII -- Hyde Park is now a manicured park filled with idle sunseekers along the Serpentine Lido and joggers running a broad swath through an urban English countryside. Check out the Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein sculptures dotted throughout. Head to the northeast corner, and you'll see rambling orators astride soapboxes at Speakers' Corner going on about anything they want -- a kind of retro stand-up act that started back in 1872 in response to some very serious riots. The only rule is that speakers can't be obscene or otherwise breach the law.

london kensington palace diana memorial walk Kensington Palace is the birthplace of Queen Victoria and the former home of Princess Diana. The unprecedented outpouring of grief after Diana's death brought the biggest collection of flowers here. The seven-mile long Diana Memorial Walk winds its way in a figure eight and is marked by 90 handsome circular plaques. Though Diana's apartment is not open to the public, the State Apartments and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection are. FYI: You can have a light lunch or afternoon tea in the Orangery -- an 18th-century greenhouse built for Queen Anne -- throughout the year.

The Natural History Museum is housed in one of London's finest Gothic-revival buildings; prime exhibits include dinosaur skeletons, Mammal Hall (with its massive blue whale) and the moonlit rain forest in the Ecology Gallery. The new Darwin Centre offers behind-the-scenes access to Charles Darwin's collection.

Editor's Note: If you want to avoid the hordes of school kids, skip the dinosaurs.

As the gateway to the West End of London, Piccadilly Circus is where five of London's busiest streets meet. By day, it's a bustling area filled with tourists, shoppers and businesspeople. By night, it springs to life with high-voltage hues of neon and a big party vibe. Have a seat at the statue of Eros in its center before joining the throngs to shop, dine and sightsee.

St. Paul's Cathedral, Christopher Wren's 17th-century Baroque masterpiece, celebrated its 300th birthday in 2010. The dome (second in size only to St. Peter's in Rome) and 528-step climb are still the best part. The American Memorial Chapel should not be missed -- it's a moving tribute to nearly 30,000 American soldiers stationed in Britain who lost their lives in WWII. There are also photos of Charles and Di tying the knot back in 1981. Editor's Note: Bear in mind that when you whisper secret messages in the Whispering Gallery, everyone else standing there will hear them.

Created by Henry VIII in the 16th century, St. James's Park is one of London's loveliest places. It's filled to the brim with ducks, swans and even pelicans, and it's home to a large lake and a bridge that offers super Buckingham Palace views. Nearby St. James's Palace (also built by Henry) is one of London's oldest buildings. Unfortunately it is not open to the public, but you can try to get the two ever-present Royal Household Guards standing guard in their cherry-red tunics and "busby" hats to smile (they won't do it).

An impressive historical archive of British art, the Tate Britain is filled with works by the likes of Constable and Gainsborough, as well as the world's largest collection of works by J.M.W. Turner. The museum also produces interesting artist shows.

Home to a massive collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present by artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Dali and Warhol -- along with a good showing of British upstarts -- the Tate Modern, in its own modern building on the banks of the Thames, is a don't-miss.

The original London residence of the British Royal Family, the Tower of London is a walled complex of ancient buildings right in the middle of the city, home to the Crown Jewels, Beefeaters and Anne Boleyn's chopping block. Kids will like the cool collection of armor. It's pricey to get in (though they do sell a family ticket), but the Beefeaters give free one-hour guided tours every half hour. If you want to avoid long lines in the summer to get close to the jewels, get there early. We love the Ceremony of the Keys. At exactly 9:53 p.m., the red-coated and Tudor-bonneted Chief Warder carries a candlelit lantern and the Queen's Keys to lock the tower gates -- as all the guards and sentries salute the keys, after which they all proceed through the Bloody Tower archway and up toward the steps where the main guard is drawn up. (Admission to the late-night ceremony is free but must be requested in writing in advance; see the Tower's Web site [www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/] for details.)

One of the world's most famous bridges, the Tower Bridge is an excellent example of Victorian engineering. Opened in 1894, it still operates using the original mechanisms. Climb to the North Tower for excellent views.

trafalgar square fountain london Highly pedestrianized and chock-a-block with pigeons, Trafalgar Square is great for people-peeping and soaking up London ambience. Built in 1805 following Britain's naval victory of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Square is adorned with fountain and statues, the most famous being that of Admiral Horatio Nelson (a triumphal memorial to England's victory over Napoleon). Two excellent art museums are nearby: the National Gallery (with works by heavyweights such as Cezanne, Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh) and the National Portrait Gallery (featuring famous British personages).

It's just wonderful to see Henry VIII's writing desk, James II's wedding suit, the enormous Great Bed of Ware that's mentioned in "Twelfth Night" and Dickens's original manuscript of "Oliver Twist." These are among the thousands of eccentric items on exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Enjoy a "cuppa" in the outdoor courtyard cafe during the summer months.

Westminster Abbey is the site of every British Coronation since William the Conqueror in 1066 and also the final resting place for countless royals and nobility since the 13th century -- as well as the site of Princess Diana's funeral service. Elizabeth I is buried on the North Aisle of the 1519 Chapel of Henry VII (he's behind the Altar); Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Carroll are over in Poets' Corner with William Shakespeare. Check out the 700-year-old oak Coronation Chair and High Altar of the Sanctuary.

There's so much to see in London you may not want to head out of town, but if you do, the cobbled streets surrounding Windsor Castle are terribly sweet (although the golden arches of McDonald's are a bit disconcerting). At the castle, an official residence of the Queen, you can visit rooms including the State Apartments (furnished with art from the Royal Collection), see Queen Mary's famous Doll House and visit St. George's Chapel, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England. Back in the town of Windsor, take the old cast-iron bridge across the Thames to historic High Street in Eton -- where you'll spot antique shops galore and well-heeled boys in their walking coats amongst the venerable old buildings of Eton College, which was founded by Henry VI in 1440 (tours of the school are available on select dates from March through October). The train from London to Windsor takes only about 35 minutes.

brighton beach england chairs sailboat sail boat summer One of Europe's first seaside resorts, Brighton is less than an hour by train from London's Victoria Station to see the spectacular Palace Pier. Still awash in old-fashioned charm, it's a fun place to explore; stop for fish and chips at English's, shop North Laine and have afternoon tea at the Mock Turtle Tea Shop.

Take the hour-plus train trip to Althorp to see the childhood home of Princess Diana and where she is now laid to rest. The Spencer home for the past 500 years, it's one of England's most beautiful country homes -- filled to the brim with works by Rubens, van Dyck, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Out in the gardens, in the center of a small island named Round Oval, is where Diana is buried.

Military history buffs will want to stop by in London at the Cabinet War Rooms to see the underground bunker from which Winston Churchill directed the WWII British effort. The rooms are as exactly as they were during the war -- plus lots of photographs and wartime memorabilia. Another haunt for wartime devotees is the Imperial War Museum.

Among the numerous royal haunts, Hampton Court Palace is famous for its giant hedge maze planted in 1690, as well as its ghosts; consider arriving by boat via the Thames. The palace gardens are wonderful, as is seeing the oldest tennis courts in the U.K. The Tudor and Baroque palace itself is magnificent (it's the oldest Tudor royal residence in England), and it contains oodles of art, tapestries and furniture.

Gardeners will want to ogle the orchids inside the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew Gardens, established in 1759. The massive gardens are spread over 300 acres, including a pond, lake and aquatic garden. The Princess of Wales Conservatory alone offers 10 different climate zones. Make sure you see the Palm House (a lovely 19th-century wrought-iron and glass pavilion), the 10-story pagoda and the 1631 Kew Palace that was a country retreat for George III. There's also a lovely on-site restaurant. Located along the banks of the Thames, it's an easy no-climbing walk.

The world's largest observation wheel, the London Eye serves up London's best in 32 capsules in 30 minutes (though to some it may seem like a lifetime as it moves at an interminably slow pace). If the weather's clear, you can see Windsor Castle.

Editor's Note: Book in advance to avoid the long lines.

If you have kids in tow (or if you simply love science), touch 2,000 hands-on exhibits and visit more than 40 galleries heralding major scientific advances for the last 300 years, all at the Science Museum -- the largest museum of its kind in the world.

The best place to pay homage to the bard in London is at Shakespeare's Globe. The original 16th-century playhouse was accidentally set on fire during Shakespeare's performance of "Henry VIII," but has been recreated to near exacting specifications.

Stratford-upon-Avon is only two hours on the train from Paddington Station. This is a must for Shakespeare lovers in spite of the summer crowds. You can see the house where the playwright was born as well as his grave at Holy Trinity Church. The town is just beautiful, what with the well-preserved timber-framed buildings and graceful white swans swimming lazily on the Avon. You can also see the childhood thatched-roof cottage of Anne Hathaway, the bard's wife. The big draw is the Royal Shakespeare Company, which features some of England's most famous actors performing great works by the bard. For spotting the actors, eat at Marlowes.
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